75. The "Tree" Radical: 木

In many ways, the extremely simple 木 shape is your garden-variety radical. That is, the "tree" radical offers few surprises. It often means "tree" and appears in kanji related to trees. Here's one example:

果 (627: fruit; result, outcome)

This character originally depicted "fruit" on a "tree."

The "Tree" Radical on the Left

Typically, 木 appears on the left side of a kanji:

村 (52: village)

(1776: character, nature; build; design; handle)

At such times, we can call it きへん.

The "Tree" Radical on the Bottom

Whatever the position, the name き works just fine, as when the tree has set down roots at the bottom of a character:

栄 (427: flourish; glory)

染 (917: dye)

柔 (1363: gentleness)

All tree photos courtesy of
Christopher Acheson

Trees Grow in the Darndest Kanji

Despite this predictability, 木 plays the role of a tree in several kanji in which I never expect to find trees. That is, I'm surprised to find that the following characters have an arboreal etymology, and I also tend not to see the 木 shape when I look at them:

末 (587: end)

According to Henshall (from whom I have extracted all etymologies here unless otherwise noted), this is a pictograph of a "tree" with an extra horizontal stroke. That upper line originally indicated "topmost branches," then came to mean "treetop," and subsequently also began representing "extremity, tip."

未 (794: not yet)

This and the look-alike 末 used to be one and the same character. Then 未 acquired a short horizontal stroke on top, indicating "fresh, young growth." This same line later came to mean "still growing," "immature," "not yet complete."

(1346: vermilion, red)

The inside of a tree trunk is often red!

I'm most startled to see a tree inside a pillow:

(2115: pillow; bolster)

Way back when, according to Kanjigen, pillows were typically made of wood! Thus, the left side of 枕 means "tree." The right side contributes sound and also means "pushing down a person's shoulders using a horizontal I-shaped shackle." When we sleep, we press down on pillows with our heads, so the idea is the same, even if the tools and victims have changed!

Trees Growing in Thin Etymological Soil

Many kanji are classified under the "tree" radical but have nothing in their etymological histories to support this. I'm thinking, for example, of the following characters:

東 (184: east)

来 (217: to come)

(1535: bundle; bunch; to tie up; to bind)

My inclusion of 東 here may surprise you; there's a popular story going around that this kanji depicts the sun rising through the trees on the east. Henshall says it ain't so. As for 束, he tells us in his newer edition that although some people interpret this character as representing a "bundle of wood tied up," he's skeptical.

Double Trees in the Kanji World

The Hilton Hotel chain has made Doubletrees ubiquitous. Before that happened, though, there were quite a few double trees in the kanji world, as well as a triple tree in 森 (38: woods):

林 (75: forest)

株 (824: stocks; shares; tree stump)

According to Kanjigen, the 株 kanji was originally written as 朱 and meant "cut tree," which is to say "tree stump." Then someone made 朱 represent "vermilion" (as we saw above), whereas 株 (with a "tree" radical newly attached) took over the "tree stump" meaning. In Japan, "tree stump" later became a secondary definition of 株, and "stocks" became the primary meaning.

棟 (1653: (street) block; ridge; ridgepole)

Although 東 on the right means "east," which is not supposed to have contained a "tree" historically, Henshall makes an exception in the case of 棟. Here, the right-hand component lends its original connotations of "supporting pole," he says.

(1893: section of a printed page; blank field; handrail)

Henshall says in his newer edition that the radical means "tree" or "wood" and that from one scholar's perspective, the 闌 phonetically contributes the associated sense "enclose on four sides," making 欄 as a whole mean "pen (for animals)" and more broadly "frame which surrounds." 

Moving on to compound words with multiple trees, I want to mention one in particular. If you go to the beautiful, woodsy Nikko area of Japan, you'll be in Tochigi Prefecture. Thanks in part to (2080: Japanese horse chestnut), the kanji form of Tochigi offers a tree sandwich:

栃木 (とちぎ: Tochigi)

The full prefecture name is 栃木県 (とちぎけん: Tochigi Prefecture). And hey, look at this! Henshall says that 県 (273: prefecture) originally had a "tree" on the left. I thought the bottom part of the character might represent "tree," but it doesn't. By the way, the ancient form of 県 symbolized a "severed head hung upside down," referring to the practice of hanging a criminal's decapitated head in a tree. And here I was associating trees with restful, healthful escapes from the pressures of life!